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The First London Austerity Olympic Games took place in 1948 so it’s no surprise that as we approach the second, there have been a number of attempts to draw comparisons between the UK as it is now and was was in the wake of the War. The Jubilee celebrations did little to dampen our enthusiasm for introspection and retrospection.

The V&A is staging one of the most prominent manifestations of this enthusiasm with its current exhibition of British design between 1948 and 2012. The three galleries devoted to the exhibits trace the ideas and objects that have shaped British design over the past 64 years. The great joy for visitors is not merely the frisson of nostalgia and love for beautifully designed and iconic objects, but the opportunity to muse about what they tell us about the country we were and what we have become.

Modern Britain was forged as the post-war government sought to kick-start the economy and rebuild society. And yet, the modern world never completely supplanted the traditional, which is why British design habitually harks back to the past. Many favourites are here including the E-Type Jaguar and the Mini, the polyprop chair, the Sex Pistols poster, the Brownie camera along with modern innovations such as the Dyson vacuum cleaner and the iMac G3. The story of the objects is told strikingly, and even the more familiar products are presented in an interesting way. Yet the true joy lies in reading between the lines: of the twin pulls of the modern and the traditional and of the enduring quality of British design and innovation betrayed by the dramatic decay of its manufacturing base which means that the best British designed products are now usually made somewhere else. The show runs until August 31.

Einstein famously said that ‘If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.’ It may not be entirely true but we do rely on bees more than many might suppose and not just for something to spread on our toast. Bee populations are collapsing around the world, threatening crops and the wider economy. This may be down to the ubiquitous mobile phone, the signals from which are thought to disorientate bees. But we can do our bit, and we don’t need to go the whole hog with beehives and beekeeping outfits either.  The people at www.omelet.co.uk have come up with an urban ‘beehaus’ that can be bought for a few hundred quid and installed in your garden or on your roof. In years to come this may be a design classic for all the right reasons …

posted by Ann Clarke

If you need any more evidence for our changing attitudes to work, it came in a May survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which found that flexible working is the most highly valued benefit for employees, way ahead of pay and bonuses. Flexible working arrangements were rated the most important benefit by 47 per cent of those surveyed, above performance related bonuses, which came second (19 per cent).

Crucially there wasn’t really much difference between the sexes in the survey, and better work life balance was seen as a more achievable goal in the long term than higher pay. Nor is this a straightforwardly generational issue because it is amongst the much discussed Gen Y bracket where you’ll find a majority who picture their future workplace as a city centre office. 

This is clearly a complex issue informed by complex motivations and expectations. Maybe it is a sign of the times, as people look for certainty in their inner life rather than the external economy. With a new government looking to extend the rights to flexible working, this subject will continue to inform the way we design and manage workplaces for many years to come.

Now that we appear at last to be emerging – haltingly – from the recession, we can start to speculate about what shape we are in to grow the economy again. Even in the darkest days of the current downturn, one of most interesting aspects of it all has been the amount of time people have spent looking beyond it. Of course, there’s been the usual speculation about how long it is all going to last, but as we are at last spotting the first green shoots, they bring with them a deal of musing about what sort of world will emerge. Will it be a new era with new ideas and principles, or will the world behave like a drunk, contrite during the hangover but back in the old habits as soon as the pain has gone?

Adversity always has a galvanising effect, certainly on the British so as the downturn loomed, we quickly saw clients looking for new ideas to try to cut costs and get a higher return on investment, which in turn drives both the uptake of any existing innovations and the development of new ones from suppliers. It’s been painful, but the benefits will be there over the longer term. And of course we believe strongly that design and creativity will play an integral role in the recovery.

My view is echoed by not only the Design Council (who you would expect to champion design as a driver of growth) and the UK and EU governments (who you may not). Earlier this year the Design Council produced a report highlighting the role of innovation as a driver of growth, claiming that firms that don’t invest in research and development during a recession are around 2.5 times more likely to fail than those that do.

The recession, coupled with growing government legislation with regard to the built environment has driven a surge of interest in new ideas in the sector, the economics are pretty clear, after staff, buildings are easily the second highest item of expenditure for the majority of organisations but they can take a number of views on how they view their property. When times are good, priorities may be different and so it may be more important to make statements about the organisation with eye catching property that is not as efficient in one way or another as it could be. At the moment we have seen some new and innovative thinking that shifts that balance of priorities in favour of efficiencies be it in terms of energy or space or whatever.

One of the more obvious ways of doing this is to reduce the size of the property requirement. In one regard, this is possible by reducing the size of workstations. This has already been going on for some time, driven not by the recession but by new technology.

New ideas are always driven in part by the drive to save money. The challenge is to look beyond this relatively straightforward move to efficiency and start to look at something as complex as return on investment. At the very least we should consider the wider implications of any changes. This is where things become complicated by long-standing nebulous ideas about how to measure productivity, the impact of design on culture, identity and so on. Saving money is essential but these are the issues that tell in the longer term. That is where good design comes in.

It’s a question of getting the balance right, knowing when to cut costs and when to invest.’?

Posted by Ann Clarke May 31st

 

 

 

 

 

 

There has always been a pretty close link between the labour market and office design.

So, as the unemployment statistics continue to hover just under the 2.5 million mark but at a time when the recession seems finally to be coming to an end, you have to wonder what impact the changing jobs market and the possible economic revival will have on the way we manage and design our workplaces. How will we be affected by the shift from a knowledge economy in which employers had to compete for talent to one in which there may be an oversupply in some areas? There is no doubt that the downturn is having an effect on demand for commercial property, but will there be any change in the way we work?

The conundrum that has dominated management thinking over the last two decades is this:

if your main asset is knowledge and that knowledge is largely locked up in people’s heads, how do you attract those heads to your organisation? Then, once they are safely in your employ, how do you make them stay there or at the very least empty some of the contents into computers and other people’s heads before they go?

It is this riddle that has led to the dominance of ‘soft’ issues in management thinking and why workplace design has focussed increasingly on softer business issues such as corporate culture, the environment and knowledge management. It has driven the growth of flexible work practices as organisations have tried to give people a better work-life balance. It has driven the softening of the workplace itself, the growth of break-out space and the focus on the team.

The economy is still founded on knowledge, and as we emerge from the current crisis the same soft principles that have shaped workplace design over the last few years are sure to be important factors in business recovery and success.

Posted by Ann Clarke 29th April